What to do About Passenger Rail

With Amtrak’s perpetual crisis being the hot topic of discussion these days, I thought I’d chime in with my own ideas on how to improve passenger rail service in the US. It’s easy to make political barbs about the situation (something I’ve done quite often), but it rings hollow without some constructive ideas for improvements as well. So here it goes.

First, here’s a few presumptions that I’m proceeding from:

  • Nationwide passenger rail is a crucial component of the public infrastructure, no less important than the highways, airports, or subways.
  • Amtrak, in its present form, will never achieve self-sufficiency.
  • An antiquated and congested infrastructure is a major factor in rail travel’s problems (both passenger rail and freight).
  • The freight railroads have no interest in taking over passenger rail operations.
  • High-speed passenger rail will be competitive with the airlines for distances of less than about 500 miles.
  • Long-distance passenger trains, with improvements, will be competitive with driving for distances greater than about 500 miles.

First of all, I’d suggest that all major railroad ROW’s be taken over by eminent domain and operated by the government. Similar to the highway system, tracks would be regulated and maintained by a combination of state and federal governments. Dispatching would be operated by some agency such as the FRA, similar to how the FAA regulates the airlines. Additionally, the infrastructure and signaling would be upgraded to a consistent set of national standards.

Amtrak and the freight railroad companies would continue to own and operate their own rolling stock, but would no longer be restricted to their own trackage. The railroads would pay a fee to operate in certain “slots”, much like how the airlines operate with a finite amount of airspace. The government would have to spend a substantial amount of money upfront to acquire the ROW’s, but I suspect the freight railroads would be happy to free themselves from having to pay for maintenance and property taxes. They’d probably let their ROW’s go for fire sale prices in return for being able to continue using them. Additional funds could be raised by issuing bonds and increasing taxes on gasoline and airline tickets.

Long-distance passenger rail
First of all, I think it’s a crucial part of our national transportation network. September 11th and its aftermath was proof of this. There is a proven demand for long-distance passenger trains despite all of Amtrak’s woes, and it is a viable alternative to the gridlocked highways and airports. Additionally, it serves many rural areas that have few other options. Most people on the Empire Builder aren’t going from Chicago to Seattle; they’re going from somplace like Fargo, North Dakota to Wolf Point, Montana.

With significant upgrades made to the infrastructure (including, ideally, electrification of major lines), passenger trains would be able to operate with minimal interference. Also, with freight railroads now operate over any tracks they choose, redundant ROW’s could be consolidated and/or dedicated for passenger use. Ideally, long-distance trains using coaches based on the successful Surfliner design could operate at up to 110 MPH and with much less interference from freight trains.

Amtrak may still not be totally self-sufficient under these circumstances, but freed from having to maintain and pay property taxes on the infrastructure, I suspect other carriers may be more likely to enter the passenger rail business and Amtrak could be spun off as a private company. If not, then Amtrak should receive adequate financial support to continue these operations.

Like the airlines, I think there could be a market for multiple rail carriers if they receive the proper incentives. There could be low-cost carriers that specialize in cheap, no-frills rail travel (i.e. Southwest Airlines), in addtion to luxury “land cruise” lines that spare no expense. The bottom line: Allow these to flourish if there’s a market demand for them, but don’t allow Amtrak to die if there isn’t.

Regardless of what happens in the rail industry, it goes without saying that Amtrak management and labor will need to do their part to increase their own accountability and efficiency, even if Amtrak continues as a quasi-governmental agency indefinitely. At the very least, it would give the company some much-needed credibility. I’m not an MBA major, so I’ll let other people figure out how to accomplish that.

High-speed regional rail
In addition to traditional long-haul passenger trains, we need a viable network of 200+ MPH high-speed trains operating on heavily-used corridors (NEC, California) and connecting major cities within a given region (Midwest, Texas, Southeast). These trains would use separate ROW’s for the high-speed portions of their journeys between stops, and could use shared ROW’s at slower speeds near terminals. These dedicated ROW’s could be newly-constructed along mainline freight ROW’s or, in certain cases, along the medians of interstate highways. In other cases, these high-speed ROW’s could be upgraded freight tracks made redundant by government ownership.

These dedicated ROW’s would be held to stringent federal standards, much like how interstate highways are held to certain design standards. These standards would include track grades and construction, grade crossings (preferably, all high-speed lines would be completely grade-separated much like the interstate highways), cab signaling, and electrification.

The high-speed trains themselves could be operated by Amtrak, regional authorities, or even private companies if the market allows, but the FRA should establish some nationwide standards for high-speed rail modeled after the successful systems in France and Japan. I’m not saying the trains should be turned into tin cans, but I don’t think we’ll ever have a true high-speed system based on 1800’s technology. There can be a happy middle ground that incorporates the proactive safety systems found on the TGV with the reactive crashworthiness standards of the FRA; the two approaches don’t need to be mutually-exclusive. However, the FRA will need to learn to think outside the box when developing these standards, and be open to newer technologies that cut down on weight but not on safety.

Articulation is a good example of this: The railcars are articulated on French TGV trains, which makes the trains much stiffer than their US counterparts, and keeps the cars inline and upright during a derailment, in addition to cutting down weight by eliminating extra trucks. There’s nothing about this that would preclude trains from being built to FRA crashworthiness standards. Even the slower-speed long-distance trains (the Surfliner-based coaches) could be articulated, cutting down on weight, increasing stability at higher speeds, and increasing interior space on the lower levels of the coaches. This would involve a sacrifice in some flexibility in making up consists, but I think this could be overcome with good planning and regular maintenance.

Of course, this would take considerable political willpower, a lot of money, and some real leadership. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of these things coming from the current climate in Washington. However, I don’t think this is impossible. Over the past 50-some-odd years this country has built a nationwide superhighway system as well as a world-class airport system, so there’s no reason we can’t also have a world-class rail system. I think there could be a large degree of puplic support for such a project, as it combines the best features of the public and private sectors. However, I think public support for passenger rail is largely untapped, as it’s not exactly a hot-button issue in most areas. This is where some leadership and advocacy need to come in.

(originally posted on the SubTalk forum at nycsubway.org)

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